The Ultimate Guide to
English Proficiency Examinations
& English Level Certificates
English has become the universal language, spoken by millions of people around the world. Whether it is for education, work, or personal reasons, proficiency in English is, for many, essential. With the increasing demand for English language skills, there are several English proficiency examinations and English level certificates available to measure your language abilities.
In this ultimate guide, we take a comprehensive look at the different English proficiency examinations and English level certificates, and how to prepare for them.
Here a quick overview:
1. What are English Proficiency Exams and Certificates?
English proficiency examinations measure a test taker’s English language level of ability. English level tests have different types of assessment, and are administered by various organisations and institutions worldwide. Upon completion, test takers discover their English level of proficiency and can be awarded with an English certificate.
Who needs an English certificate?
An English level of proficiency certificate may be required for academic or professional purposes, such as studying abroad, seeking employment, or migration. Having a recognised English proficiency certificate is often a mandatory requirement for non-native English speakers to get admission to international universities or work in a foreign country.
2. English levels explained
English levels describe the different levels of proficiency in order to support language learning, language teaching and language assessment.
Different descriptors of English levels are used in language learning and assessment by examination bodies. All however, can be mapped against the internationally-recognised CEFR descriptors.
The Common European Framework of Reference for language learning (CEFR) was developed by the Council of Europe. It divides language ability into six levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2) and gives a detailed description of each level. The CEFR levels are:
- A1 = Beginner to Elementary
- A2 = Elementary to Pre-Intermediate
- B1 = Intermediate
- B2 = Upper Intermediate
- C1 = Advanced
- C2 = Proficient
We provide a detailed description of the CEFR English levels on our website.
Below we look at the most recognised English proficiency exams and include a description of their scoring levels.
3. Main English Proficiency Exams & Certificates
There are several English proficiency exams and certificates available globally, which are widely recognised by universities, employers, and immigration authorities.
The most internationally-recognised English proficiency examinations are:
Each of these exams measures the English language proficiency of non-native speakers, but they differ in their approach, format, locations, scoring, validity and pricing.
Understanding the different types of English proficiency exams and certificates, their format, and scoring criteria, is essential for selecting the right exam and preparing for it effectively. Let’s take a look at each in more detail.
IELTS (International English Language Testing System)
The IELTS exam has two formats: the Academic test and the General Training test. IELTS Academic test is suitable for those who wish to study at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, while the General Training test is for those who want to work or migrate to an English-speaking country.
IELTS has four sections: listening, reading (academic or general), writing (academic or general), and speaking. In total, the test takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete.
Test takers must attend an IELTS test centre and the exam may be taken on paper or at a computer. In some countries, there is also the option for remote testing with IELTS Academic online, but not all visa authorities or universities accept this format.
IELTS gives scores for each section and a total score. These scores range from 0-9, with 0.5 intervals. Universities usually require applicants to have a minimum IELTS score of 5.5 to 6.5. This equates to CEFR level B2.
Results are available 13 days after completing the paper test, whereas computer versions take 3–5 days after test completion.
The IELTS certificate is valid for two years.
IELTS costs around €240 in Germany (approximately $250).
TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
The TOEFL iBT measures a candidate’s ability to understand and use English in an academic setting. It is one of the most widely recognised English proficiency examination and is accepted by universities worldwide.
The TOEFL iBT exam has four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. In total, the test takes under 2 hours to complete.
Test takers take the exam at a TOEFL iBT test centre via computer or on paper. Alternatively, they can also take the exam from their own home and are monitored online by a human examiner. It is important to double check which format is accepted by the relevant visa authorities or universities in advance.
TOEFL iBT gives scores for each section and a total score. Each section has a score range of 0–30. Together, there is a total score of 0–120. Universities often require applicants to have a minimum TOEFL iBT total score of 70-80. This equates to CEFR level B2.
Results are available 11-13 days after completing the paper test, whereas computer versions are available 4-8 days after test completion.
The TOEFL iBT certificate is valid for two years.
TOEFL iBT costs around €250 in Germany (approximately $265).
Cambridge English Language Assessment
The Cambridge English Qualifications consist of five exams which are accepted worldwide. Each exam focuses on a level of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).
- A2 Key (previously KET)
- B1 Preliminary (previously PET)
- B2 First (previously FCE)
- C1 Advanced (previously CAE)
- C2 Proficiency (previously CPE)
These English examinations allow learners to build on previous skills and to target the next level.
The Cambridge exams have four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. An A2 Key test takes approximately 2 hours to complete. The time increases for the higher level exams, and C2 Proficiency takes approximately 4 hours to complete.
Test takers must attend a Cambridge test centre and the exam may be taken on paper or at a computer.
The Cambridge exams give a score for each section and a total score. Cambridge uses the following grades:
- A: This is the highest score and test takers are awarded with the next CEFR level.
- B: Grade B awards test takers with the CEFR level of the examination.
- C: Grade C also awards test takers with the CEFR level of the examination.
- Under Grade C: Cambridge may award test takers with the CEFR level below that of the examination.
Results are available 4-6 weeks after completing the paper test, whereas computer versions arrive only 2-3 weeks after test completion.
The Cambridge exams do not have an expiry date. However, organisations may choose not to accept certificates older than a fixed period, e.g. two years.
Cambridge exams start at approximately €150 for the A2 Key, and increase in price for the higher exams. The C2 Proficiency exam costs around €250 in Germany (approximately $265).
PTE Academic (Pearson Test of English Academic)
Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) is a language test that can be used for study applications worldwide, visa applications for work and migration.
The PTE Academic exam has four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. In total, the test takes approximately 2 hours to complete.
Test takers take the PTE Academic exam via computer in an official test centre. There is also a PTE Academic home version which can be taken online, but this may not be accepted by visa authorities.
PTE Academic give scores for each section and a total score. The scores range from 10-90. Universities often require applicants to have a minimum PTE Academic score of 59-75. This equates to CEFR level B2.
Results are typically available in 48 hours.
The PTE Academic certificate is valid for two years.
PTE Academic costs around €240 in Germany (approximately $250).
4. Other English certificates
There are alternative English level exams which can be more flexible and advantageous for a variety of test takers. Popular reasons to choose these alternative English proficiency exams include the format, availability, cheaper prices, quicker results and recognition.
- EnglishRadar English Test
- Duolingo English Test
- EF SET English Test
All of these exams have been recognised for different purposes in work and study, but may not be accepted by every authority. Therefore, if you need to take an English proficiency test for a specific purpose (e.g. travel visas for study or work), you should always check in advance which certificates are accepted by the relevant authority.
5. English level certificates comparison
Here is a visual comparison of the different English level scores in relation to the CEFR levels. This comes from information published by each examining body, which compares their English proficiency examination scores to the CEFR levels.
6. English proficiency exam tips
These tips support your preparation before the examination, and help you develop strategies for the exam day.
We also look at the benefits of taking an exam preparation course with an English trainer (see below).
Take an exam preparation course with an English trainer
Just like when you’re learning to drive and preparing for your driving test, it is advantageous to take lessons with a qualified trainer. That’s why we recommend taking exam preparation lessons for an English proficiency test. Our English exam preparation course has two clear targets:
- to take your English skills to the next level of proficiency, and
- to train you with exam strategies and give practice tests that help to achieve your goals on the day.
We’re happy to advise you about our packages for an English exam preparation course with our professional trainers. They provide personalised training, authentic exam practice and feedback based on your individual needs. Please get in touch for more information.